In addition to being on the Scottish Government’s Expert Advisory Group on the lessons from the horsemeat scandal I have also been a member of the External Advisory Group (EAG) on the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres. Not the Portas Report, but the Fraser Review.
The Report was published on the 4th July and is available online. This has been a rather more long running review than the horsemeat one, and had a very different feel. The topics are rather different and the approach to the issues is distinct.
You can read the Town Centre Review report yourselves (and may already have done so), and can make up your own mind about it. The Scottish Government is now considering it and will make a response to the recommendations. I thought it might be worthwhile to provide a brief summary here and to make some reflections on the approach taken.
The Report is a short and succinct read with the intention of focusing attention. It has a small number of key actions and recommendations including:
- A “town centre” first principle that applies to public bodies
- Bringing empty town centre properties back into use for residential purposes
- Business rates incentivisation schemes to have a town centre focus
- Broadening the appeal of town centers through diversity of uses.
There are others, organised under six themes (town centre living, vibrant local economies, enterprising communities, accessible public services, digital towns, proactive planning) and focused on key principles (diversity, empowerment, pragmatism, action, leadership and collaboration).
One of the key things that has underpinned the development of the report is a very different focus from the Portas Review in England. Portas was charged with looking at high streets and reported accordingly. The Fraser Review was very much about town centres, within which high streets sit. From the outset it was recognised by the government and the EAG that high streets and retail alone can not solve the problems of our town centres and places. Scotland needs a broader solution focused on making town centres interesting and desirable and making people want to be part of them in various ways.
As a result the report goes off in very different ways to the Portas Review and is much broader and grander in concept and scope. but, we would argue firmly, we have to have this place based approach if we are to have any chance to make a difference. Likewise the report is strong on local empowerment, local activities and a bottom-up approach. Government’s role is as a catalyst for development, a remover of barriers and not as a dead top-down hand.
The challenge will be for local towns and places to pull this together and for national government to build the right framework and resources to make it happen. This is a large task and it will be interesting to see what resources and actions are suggested in response. As many have said in the discussion post publication, this is a good starting point, but it is not a panacea.
The government and the EAG were somewhat hamstrung in their deliberations and recommendations in a number of areas. Two spring to mind immediately: the issue ofbusiness rates is getting a lot of attention (and I intend to return to this separately) but the Scottish government’s decision to mirror England and postpone revaluation had an adverse consequence on the review. There is much to be said and done on rates as a whole and the sooner the better. Secondly, VAT is not a Scottish issue and so the current situation was not in the remit to change; this however, as the report notes, is damaging to town centres. Again, we need to think how we could change this.
These financial issue are vitally important, to all those interested and working in town centers. But they again are not the only issue to solve. We need places that we can be proud of and to do that we need new ways of working and thinking in towns and changed priorities and emphases in how we manage and run towns. This is a big challenge to local authorities, planners, property owners, users and communities, but is one we need to get right. The Report sounds the starting gun on this.